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review 2018-04-07 06:30
Blood Noir: Anita Blake #16
Blood Noir - Laurell K. Hamilton

Once upon a time I loved this series. Then it changed, and I drifted along hoping it would change back, and eventually I rage quit the series entirely. Now here I am several years later, and I found myself wanting to revisit the series. Rather than going back and reading old favorites I decided to forge ahead since this book promised to feature my favorite side character. I figured if I went into things with my expectations adjusted it might be okay. And it mostly was.

 

I actually enjoyed returning to this world, and hanging out with a few of my favorite characters of yore. Is it the series it used to be? Not at all. But since I knew that going in it wasn't a disappointment. I will say this book actually had a plot, and conversations, and not just sex, so that helped. It didn't hurt that the menagerie of lovers and characters were all left at home as Anita and Jason go off on their own. Narrowing it down kept things on track. All in all this was the fast fun read I needed right now. Anita might have morphed from a kick ass executioner into a steamy succubus, but knowing that from the start meant it didn't lose any points for me.

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review 2018-03-21 20:08
A Nordic noir thriller with two fascinating protagonists, D.I. Hulda Hermannsdóttir and Iceland.
The Darkness - Ragnar Jónasson

Thanks to NetGalley and to Michael Joseph for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve followed with interest the rise in popularity of the Nordic/ Scandinavian Thrillers in recent years, although I have read random titles rather than becoming a dedicated fan of any single writer. (I’ve also watched quite a few of the crime TV series produced in those countries and I’ve particularly enjoyed Wallander, The Bridge, and The Killing). This is the first novel I read by Ragnar Jónasson, although I suspect it won’t be the last.

The novel contains some familiar elements, although with interesting variations. The main character, Hulda, a Detective Inspector, that works in Reykjavík, is 64 and on her way to retirement. She is surprised by the news that this retirement has been brought forward, and, as an afterthought to keep her quiet, her boss tells her she can work on a cold case of her choice. She chooses the apparent suicide of a Russian girl, an asylum seeker because she mistrusts the lead investigator. The novel, written in the third person, mostly from Hulda’s point of view, follows her last three days in the force. I say mostly because there are other fragments that are told from other characters’ points of view, although at first, it is not that clear who they are. We come to understand how they relate to the main story later, but I must clarify that they are clearly distinct, easy to follow, and do not cause any confusion. They do provide additional information, a different perspective, and they help us understand the story and the characters more fully (and yes, they might also mislead us a tiny bit), although I suspect some readers might catch on faster than others as to their true relevance.

Hulda is a known standard of the genre: the old detective forced to leave the job that is determined to solve one last case before retirement. Only, in this case, she is a woman, and she does reflect on how difficult things have been for her because she is a woman, glass ceiling and all. She does share some of the other attributes sometimes typical of these characters: she is very good but not that very well liked; she has to work alone because she is not a favourite among the other detectives; she resents her younger boss and many of her teammates; she is effective but might bend the rules slightly; she is reserved and has suffered tragedies in her life… The author is very good at creating a very compelling character and then making us question our judgment. At least in my case, I really liked Hulda to begin with, but after a while, I realised that she might be one of those favourites of mine, an unreliable narrator (or, although not directly a narrator, her point of view is unreliable). She makes decisions that are morally questionable; she drinks a bit too much; and well… I am keeping my mouth shut. My feelings for this character went from really liking her, to not being so sure, to not liking her very much, and then… This change in opinion and perception is cleverly achieved and extremely well done, and it reminded me of books like We Need to Talk about Kevin (not the story itself, but the way the writer slowly makes us empathise with a character to later pull the rug from under our feet).

The story is dark in more ways than one. As I said, there are morally grey areas (or even quite dark): the subject matter and the fact that a young asylum seeker and her death are not considered important and have been all but forgotten a year down the line (unfortunately that rings true), Hulda’s own life and the secrets she keeps, and Iceland. Although there is not a great deal of violence (and definitely not explicit), there is a certain unsettling air and a cold and menacing atmosphere, that comes in part from Hulda’s paranoia and her personality (suspicious and mistrustful), but goes beyond it. The setting is very important and it contributes to the story and its effect on the reader. Iceland is a character in its own right. The descriptions of the many locations in the book create a picture in the reader’s mind and help understand how important the place is to the mood, the characters, and their way of life. A place where light and darkness rule people’s lives, and where the inhabitants have adapted to conditions many of us would find difficult and hostile. The title is apt for many reasons (as we learn as we read on). It is a noir novel, where nobody is exactly as they appear at first, and where red herrings, false clues, and side-stories muddy the storyline, adding layers of complexity to what appears straightforward, at first.

The writing is fluid, and versatile, providing different registers and clearly distinct voices for the different aspects of the story and the varied points of view, and although it is a translation, it is well-written and the style fits in perfectly the content. It is not the usual fast-paced thriller, but one that builds up tension and organically incorporates the psychology of the characters and the setting into the story.

A couple of examples:

Time was like a concertina: one minute compressed, the next stretching out interminably.

‘She’s being deported. It happens. You know, it’s a bit like those games of musical chairs you play as a kid. The music starts, everyone gets up and walks in a circle and when the music stops, one of the chairs is taken away and someone’s unlucky.’

The ending… I will not talk in detail about it but although perhaps not unexpected, is a bit of a shocker.

A great (and not long) novel for lovers of Nordic thrillers, or anybody who enjoys thrillers that deviate from the norm. I’d also recommend it to anybody intrigued by Iceland and unreliable narrators. And I’d also recommend it to authors always intrigued by other authors’ technique and voice. I intend to keep reading the series. And enjoying it.

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text 2018-02-26 00:42
The Sunday Post ... But with a Twist

Well, it is Sunday, and this is a post, but as some of you may have noticed, I have been out and about enjoying this year's Granite Noir Festival this weekend. The Granite Noir Festival is a short local event that celebrates crime writing - with lots of readings, author meets, workshops, tours, theatre, exhibitions, etc. For such a relatively small interest group in this rather remote part of the world, there was a lot to see and do.

 

I have already written about the author event last night, with Hugh Fraser and Robert Daws, and I had planned to join the conversation with Val McDermid on Friday night also, but may have fallen asleep on the sofa after work... Um, yeah. Never mind.

 

Anyway, the main event for me this weekend took place tonight in the rather snazzy restaurant of our local theatre - A Poisoned Cocktail Party hosted by none other than Dr Katheryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic (which you've probably heard me gush on about in the past)  and Making the Monster (which I am currently enjoying). 

 

So, here is the twist ... Instead of our usual Sunday Soup feature, I will share some of the cocktails with you.

The idea was that with each "round", Dr. Harkup would tell about some of the ingredients and what made them poisonous and present stories - mostly of a dark but humorous nature - about the use of the poison. Btw, these were not all the same ones as described in A is for Arsenic, which made for an added bonus of interesting trivia.

 

First off, we had this one:

 

 

This was a concoction of gin, Cointreau, and absinthe (or rather essence of absinthe), with a shot of juice (can't remember which one but there was a slight hint of grapefruit). 

The cocktail itself was not a winner for me - it was remarkably bland. 

 

However, the story of how absinthe was used and how the thujone, the compound in the ingredient wormwood, can be toxic and lead to hallucinations and convulsions. There is, apparently, very little of the stuff in absinthe, and most of the problems with absinthe may have been caused by the high percentage of alcohol in the drink - but it was interesting to hear that Victorians also added copper compounds and other things to the drink to get the green colour. And those added impurities may actually be a cause of concern of their own.

 

We also heard about Brazil nuts, which may, apart from selenium, also contain uranium, depending on where they have grown. Delightful.

 

In Round # 2, we were given this yummy looking duo:

 

 

That is, tapenade with poppy seed crackers (to soak up some of the %), and a blood orange and amaretto cocktail - which was delicious.

 

Let me just say, there was nothing to worry about with the olive dish. 

 

The drink, of course, provided the anchor for a discussion of cyanide, which was one of the poisons described in A is for Arsenic that I found particularly fascinating. It is fast and effective, and horrible. And yet, cyanide compounds are in so many things other than bitter almonds, cherry stones, apricot stones, and apple pips - but it is the reaction with stomach acid that causes the problems. (Btw, apparently one would have to ingest about 200 apple seeds before the getting into trouble.)

 

The poppy seed crackers led to one of the most elaborate discussions of the evening - which was all about opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin. It still shocks me that heroin was prescribed as a "non-addictive" painkiller and given over the counter to anyone, including teething babies.

 

Lastly, we had this one:

 

 

I have no idea what was in that other than some coffee-based liquor like Kahlua or Tia Maria. I don't drink a lot and was already struggling with the previous two cocktails at this point. (I could, of course, have opted for the non-alcoholic versions on offer, but ... nah... )

 

The cocktail was ok. I was far more interested in Dr. Harkup's discussion about caffeine. It is also a neurotoxin, but it is so prevalent in our diet that most humans have build up some sort of tolerance to it. However, there has apparently been an experiment where  spiders were given different drugs and the scientists observed the effect on the spiders' web spinning skills. Apparently caffeine messed them up tremendously. 

 

Read more about this here or here

 

What have I learned from this evening? Buy your cyanide fresh and take your coffee seriously!

 

In all seriousness, tho, this was a brilliant event and I can only recommend that, if you have the chance, you go and see Dr. Harkup talks or read one of her books. 

But then, you already know that I'm a fan.

 

Happy Sunday!

 

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text 2018-02-24 21:11
Granite Noir: Hugh Fraser & Robert Daws

I know this is a crappy picture. Sorry.

The talk with Hugh Fraser and Robert Daws this afternoon, however,  was quite a lot of fun.

 

It all started with a spotlight on a local author, John Bolland, who was given a chance to read a few pages from his own work - a crime novel written in Doric, which sounded like it was going to be an entertaining read. I need to find out if it was published, yet, or still in progress.

 

This was then followed by an interview of Robert and Hugh - with Robert doing much of the talking, I thought - and a follow on Q&A from the audience. 

 

It was fun. Both actors are well at home with interviews, both have a great sense of humour, and a very down to earth, approachable manner. They clearly enjoy their new career as crime fiction authors. 

 

As enjoyable as it was being part of the event this afternoon, there was very little I have learned in addition to what I had already read about the background to Hugh's series. Except maybe that Lizzie, the dominatrix/prostitute girlfriend of his main character Rina, was based on a friend of the author's. And that he used to work (playing in a band) in some of the dives in Soho that are described in the books. 

 

I was somewhat glad to hear hear about his motivation for some of the plot/character choices in his books, as I had some issues with them (mentioned here and here). I still have issues with some of these choices - the, what felt to me like, gratuitous sexual violence, the depiction of some scenes, the lack of decent make characters - but I get what he was trying to do, and I still maintain that the Rina Walker series is a fun romp of a read (just with added "eeww" and "wtf" factors).

Apparently, I was not the only reader who was knocked sideways by the books. The interviewer was quite shocked by the fact that this had come from the man who portrayed the quiet and genteel Captain Hastings for decades - these books are as far removed from the image of Arthur Hastings as you can get. A turn that Hugh said was not planned by him, but just happened that way when he first "met" Rina "walking into that hotel in Acapulco, the opening scene of the first book Harm. 

 

With respect to Robert Daw's books, I cannot say much. The setting in Gibraltar does sound interesting but I have not read the books. I may have a look at the library later next week. 

 

I leave with one of the funniest parts of the Q&A, when a lady in the front row prepared her question with something along the lines of "I don't mean any offence but you both are gentlemen of a certain age. What motivated you both chose much younger, more attractive women as your main characters ...?"

Much laughter ensued.

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review 2018-02-19 23:36
A solid domestic-noir thriller with a familiar plot, unlikely to surprise those who love Hitchcock movies and habitual readers of thrillers
The Woman in the Window: A Novel - A. J. Finn

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely decided to review.

I have been reading a lot of thrillers recently and kept coming across this book and, eventually, I thought I would read it. The description and the accolades mention Hitchcock and noir film and that convinced me I should read it.

Many of the reviews compare it to The Girl on the Train. Although I have watched the movie adaptation of that book, I haven’t read the novel, so I cannot compare the style, although yes, I agree that the story is very similar. This is more Rear Window (because the protagonist, Anna Fox, a psychologist, suffers from agoraphobia following a traumatic incident, and she is stuck at home, in New York) with touches of Body Double (I agree with the reviewer who mentioned that). It also brought to mind, for me, apart from the many Hitchcock and noir movies the character herself is so fond of (Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes, Rope), some newer movies, like Copycat (the main protagonist is also a psychologist suffering from agoraphobia, in that case after being assaulted by a serial killer) and Murder by Numbers (that is a new treatment of Rope).

Anna is an unreliable narrator, and she tells us the story in the first-person (I know some readers don’t like that). I do like unreliable narrators, but I did not feel there was much new or particularly insightful here. She is a psychologist who seems to be able to help others with their problems (she joins an online chat and helps others suffering from agoraphobia) but is not capable of fully accepting or recognising her own (she sees a psychiatrist once a week but lies to him, does not take the medication as prescribed, keeps drinking alcohol despite being fully aware of its depressant effects and knowing that it should not be mixed with her medication), and lies to others, and what is worse, to herself. The fog produced by the alcohol and her erratic use of medication make her unreliable (and yes, some of her medication can cause hallucinations, so there’s that too), and although her predicament and her agoraphobia are well portrayed, because a big twist (that if you’ve read enough books will probably suspect from very early on) needs to remain hidden, for plot reasons, it is difficult to fully empathise with her. She is intelligent, she loves old movies, and she’s articulate (although her intelligence and her insight are dulled by her own behaviour and her state of mind), but we only get a sense of who she really is (or was, before all this) quite late in the book, and yes, perhaps she is not that likeable even then (in fact, she might become even less likeable after the great reveal). Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved books where the main protagonist is truly dislikeable, but I am not sure that is intentional here, and I felt that the character follows the plot and accommodates to its needs, rather than the other way round.

The rest of the characters… well, we don’t know. As we see them from Anna’s perspective, and this is impaired, there is not much to guide us. She is paranoid at times and can change from totally depending on somebody and thinking they are the only person who can help her, to dismissing them completely (that detail is well portrayed), but although some of the characters are potentially intriguing, we don’t know enough about any of them to get truly interested. This is a novel about Anna, her disintegrating mind, the lies she tells herself, and how her being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or rather, looking at the wrong place at the wrong time) almost ends her life. For me, the needs of the plot and of making it an interesting page-turner end up overpowering some of the other elements that I think are truly well achieved (like her mental health difficulties).

The writing style is fluid and competent, and it is evident that the writer knows what readers of the genre will expect (yes, from his biography is easy to see he knows the knots and bolts of the profession), although, personally, I think people who don’t read thrillers regularly will find it more interesting than those who read them often, as avid thriller readers are likely to spot the twists and expect what is coming next early on. The agoraphobia aspects of the story are well written (and from his biography it is clear that the author has a first-hand knowledge of the condition), although I agree with some comments that the many mentions of the wine spilling down the carpet or on the character’s clothes, of opening another bottle, and abandoning a glass of wine somewhere could have been reduced, and we would still have got the message.

Lovers of film-noir and Hitchcock movies will enjoy the references to the films, some very open, and others more subtle, although the general level of the character’s awareness and her wit reduces as the book moves on due to the stress and pressure Anna is under. The ending… Well, I’m trying not to write any spoilers so I’ll keep my peace, although, let’s say you might enjoy the details, but there are not that many possible suspects, so you might guess correctly. (Yes, it does follow the standard rules).

In my opinion, this is a well-written book, that perhaps tries too hard to pack all the elements that seem required nowadays to make it big in the thriller genre: a female unreliable narrator, domestic problems (domestic noir), meta-fictional references to other books and films, twists and turns galore, witty dialogue (not so much, but yes, especially early on Anna can quote with the best of them), an action filled ending with a positive/hopeful message. I enjoyed the descriptions of Anna’s agoraphobia and, particularly, the way the house becomes another character (that is what I felt gave it most of its noir feel).  People who don’t read many thrillers or watch many movies in the genre are more likely to be surprised and thrilled than those who do, as the storyline will be very familiar to many. I am intrigued to see what the writer will produce next, and I am not surprised to hear that the book’s film adaptation rights have been already bought. That figures.

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